Native Sun News: Cancer is number two killer in Indian Country
The following story was written and reported by Randall Howell. All content © Native Sun News.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA –– The bad news: Cancer is moving up on the “killer list” in Indian country.

The good news: Cancer is moving up on the “survivor list” in Indian country.

As the American Indian baby-boomers move into retirement age, they show a significant increase in what is fast becoming the No. 2 cause of death on American Indian reservations and for America’s urban Indians.

Also, as medical technology makes significant strides in treatment, the cancer survival rate also continues to climb.

“That’s hope for us,” said Tinka Duran, outreach coordinator for the Northern Plains Comprehensive Cancer Control Program (NPCCCP). Duran and Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway, NPCCCP program director, teamed up last week to conduct the annual Northern Plains American Indian Cancer Summit.

Although cancer does afflict children, it’s considered an “older person disease” by western medical oncologists because generally it’s a disease that’s slow to fully develop, catching most patients at middle age or older.

The summit, which was at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City, drew hundreds of cancer fighters and survivors to listen to hands-on health-care professionals – and in some cases policy-makers as well as researchers – share “the hope” that survivors need to continue their journey into cancer-free living.

Perhaps the highlight of the summit, which selects sites throughout the Northern Plains’ 18 reservations for its annual meetings, was the “storytelling” by survivors, each of whom received recognition for sharing their struggle to survive.

As many said, it’s a sometimes lonely struggle, often against an unseen enemy, that still has a long way to go to beat the No. 1 killer –– diabetes –– of American Indians.

“Depending where you look on the Northern Plains, cancer can be the No.2 killer of American Indians, or it’s still heart disease that remains at No.2,” said Duran, who also was master of ceremonies for the two-day summit.

And statistics gathered from across the Northern Plains reservations bear her out.

Interestingly, Duran pointed out late on the second day of the summit, when attendees were invited to share stories about their struggles, that everyone “really is a cancer survivor,” because the diseases impact touches the hearts and minds of the entire family and the extended family.

“We’re all survivors,” she said, congratulating the care-givers who so often stood by a loved one with cancer until “another journey arrived.”

Marie Randall, a 90-year-old Lakota elder who lives in Wanblee, conducted a water blessing each day to open and close the summit, which featured Paula Longfox as keynote speaker. Longfox, a cancer survivor, has logged some 35 years as an instructor in the Rapid City School District.

Among those speaking on Tuesday, the summit’s official first day, were Wanda Dalley with the Wagner Service Unit of Indian Health Services, Jodie Fetsch of Custer Health and Elaine Keeps Eagle, who is with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Also presenting were Humphrey Long, a medical support assistant with IHS and Norma Schmidt, director of cancer programs for the South Dakota Department of Health.

Afternoon summit speakers were Daniel Petereit, a physician who offered an update on Walking Forward titled “Improving Cancer Cure Rates in American Indian Communities,” Kyle Muus, a senior research associate and assistant professor at the Center for Rural Health in the University of North Dakota’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Grand Forks, N.D.

Additionally, Delf Schmidt-Grimminger, a scientist with the Avera Research Institute and a professor at the University of South Dakota’s Sanford School of Medicine, spoke to the summit attendees, number nearly 300 – a possible attendance record-breaker for the annual event.

First-day events concluded with Maylynn Warne, program director for the Northern Plains Health Promotion program, and Jacqui Arpan, health education technician at Sioux San Health Education, offering half-hour presentations.

He Sapa drum group helped open and close each day.

John Haas, president of the Red Stone Group and a cancer survivor, talked to attendees about the blends and contrasts of traditional healing and western medicine used for cancer treatment.

A panel session just before lunch on Wednesday featured Leo Eagle Bull, a community educator with Sioux San Hospital’s “Diabetes Prevention” program. Russell Price, director/coordinator for that hospital’s diabetes prevention program.

Also in on the panel discussion was Tillie Cook, health educator for the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, and Connie Brush Breaker, director of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s diabetes prevention program.

After lunch on Wednesday, a panel on survival support was offered by Duran, the summit’s outreach coordinator, Iva Jo Ruff, a cancer survivor, Patty Eagle Bull, a community member, Selena Wolfblack and Sharon Richards, both cancer survivors.

Each talked about their personal journey with cancer.

With breast cancer owning a leading role in the deaths and survivors among American Indian women, and lung cancer leading the pack for men, summit attendees got a glimpse of some “quit line” features developed and promoted by the Northern Plains Tribal Tobacco Technical Support Center.

“The problem we have with American Indians is that we don’t seek doctor checkups as often as we say we do, and that men are notoriously slow for a physical exam on a regular basis,” said Duran, who explained that smoking and second-hand smoke have proven to be major causes of cancer in Indian country.

Underscored by most of the cancer death statistics in Indian country is that early diagnosis is uncommon. In fact, normal diagnosis for American Indians with cancer is at Stage IV of the disease – a stage almost too late for treatment, according to most oncologists.

Early detection – stages I or II – was stressed during the summit’s cancer control program – a program aimed at decreasing the number of individuals who are diagnosed with cancer, increasing the quality of life for those who are affected by cancer and decreasing the mortality of cancer patients.

Shared with attendees were facts that have been gleaned from oncologists and anecdotally assessed by cancer survivors throughout the Northern Plains, which to NPCCCP are North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

Among those accepted facts are that cancer has moved into the second leading cause of death for American Indians in the Northern Plains, accounting for 15 percent of all deaths for indigenous people.

In addition, NPCCCP reports that the death rates for breast, cervical, colon/rectum and lung cancer for Northern Plains American Indians exceeds the rates for all other races in the country.

On the prevention side, habitual tobacco use accounts for about 30 percent of all cancer deaths. About 87 percent of lung cancer deaths can be attributed to cigarette smoking, according to NPCCCP tracking experts.

American Indians, especially those on the Northern Plains, have the highest rates of smoking of all racial/ethnic groups. NPCCCP promotes a healthy diet and active lifestyle as important ways to help reduce the risk of cancer.

Today, there are screening tests available for many of the major cancer sites – particularly breast, cervix, colon/rectum and prostate, according to NPCCCP.

According to NPCCCP, regular testing and proper follow-up can reduce the number of new cancer cases and the number of those who die from the disease.

And, of course, way too many American Indians in the Northern Plains do not receive the important and potentially life-saving cancer screening tests, according to NPCCCP reports.

Tears ended the two days of summit programming as many wept for those who had gone before them, wept from the strength of their own survival, and wept for those who would face their own cancer survival fight in the generations to come.

“Sharing,” several said, “was frightening but freeing, too.”

“I am free to survive,” a wheelchair-bound woman from Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe said, amid tears. “I am a woman warrior. I will survive.”

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